Editor’s Note: Jill Spivey Caddell teaches and writes about American literature and culture at the University of Kent, UK. The views expressed here are the author’s. Read more opinion on CNN. Please note: The op-ed below contains spoilers for “Normal People.”
The most intimate scene in the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s “Normal People” is not one of the “intimate” scenes.
It comes later in the series in episode 10, as our protagonists Connell and Marianne (played by Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones) are living apart for a year. [Note: Spoilers below.] She’s studying in Sweden, and he’s back at Trinity University in Dublin. They’ve been dancing around each other for years by this point in the narrative, never quite managing to turn their electric connection into a fully fledged relationship. A series of traumas – the suicide of a school friend, Rob, and a terrible breakup with his girlfriend, Helen – has sent Connell into a deep depression. He and Marianne stay in touch with email and texts while she is away, but this episode is shaped by their video chats over Skype.
The intimate scene happens as Connell is trying to explain his relationship with Marianne to his new therapist. In the middle of the conversation, we flash back to a video chat between Marianne and Connell. She tells him she’s sorry to hear about his breakup; that even though they never got along she knew Helen made him happy. Connell isn’t sure if he can feel happiness. He just feels flat, until he becomes anxious or panicked. “I’m so tired,” he says, and Marianne responds, “Do you want to sleep? We can keep Skype on. Carry me over to your bed.”
The next frame shows Connell asleep in bed, a white glow illuminating him. His laptop is on and shows Marianne writing at her desk in Stockholm. She puts a sweater on and adjusts her own laptop to watch him sleep. Later, we see him wake up. “You’re awake,” Connell says. “Morning,” Marianne replies.
Would I care so much about the scene of Marianne distantly watching over Connell if I had seen it a few months ago? I certainly would have cared differently. “Normal People,” Rooney’s novel and the Hulu series, are pre-Covid-19 productions, but both perfectly understand the desires we place on communication technologies and the ways they nearly always come up short.
It’s a romantic scene, sure, but more so it’s a scene that demonstrates something we are told about Connell and Marianne throughout the series: They are best friends. They are better together than apart. They grow together, in a way that Rooney memorably analogizes when she writes at the end of the novel: “All these years they’ve been like two little plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to take room, taking certain unlikely positions.” This simile of relationality over time isn’t describing the shifting velocities of romantic love (though it can form one of the many rhythms of romantic love). It’s marking the slow, “vegetable” time of friendship.
These long blank periods of proximity and possibility can’t be scheduled on Zoom. I live an ocean and several time zones from most of my friends and family, and FaceTime formed a big part of my friendships before lockdown. I can count individually the times I’ve seen dear friends in person since I moved abroad, friends I used to enjoy timeless nearness with whenever we liked. Now, in the dissimilar timelessness of lockdown, which has absorbed our prior sense of normal daily rhythms, those in-person meetings contain even more solace.
The scene of Marianne staying through the night with her friend who needs her encapsulates the essence of friendly intimacy, which I now realize, in our pandemic age, exists in its purest form without temporal pressure. When Marianne offers to “keep Skype on,” she promises to extend the time of their togetherness beyond the red button. This is what’s so hard about the distancing we’re all experiencing right now. We no longer can replicate the expansive time of friendship, the time that the critic Anne Helen Petersen associates with “that teenage feeling.”
We are used to the driftless sensation of high school’s endless summers, but those summers were filled, if we were lucky, with friendly intimacy. My most enduring and sustaining friendships have unfurled in the blank time of long car rides, long phone calls, long AOL Instant Messenger chats, long hours watching movies in damp basements, long nights figuring out how to be with the world. These times weren’t relationally intensive, a frisson of contact; they were periods in which I learned to be around and in proximity to others.
I can’t tell you how much joy I’ve drawn from the last visit I had from a friend at the end of February. It was a time (eight weeks ago, let me recall it for you) when coronavirus was something we knew about and yet had no idea what shapes it would assume. Melissa and I had spent two years as roommates in graduate school. We enjoyed all the lovely, lazy moments of intimacy that these housing arrangements create and in the homeliest of circumstances: making tea during reading group meetings, drinking coffee in the park, walking by the lake.
Since those two years over a decade ago, we’ve rarely lived in the same time zone. We’ve always video chatted in between brief times together at conferences and during visits that occur a year or two apart. Nothing makes you realize how poor a substitute video chatting is for having a real live person with you than having a real live person with you, a person to walk and talk with in the old way, a person to play backyard basketball with your kids (one of whom she’d never met in person!) and with whom conversation always feels easy. Someone who doesn’t need catching up on things because she knows all my things already. But that was eight weeks ago, and now all the plans I had to see friends over the summer — for their weddings, to meet their new babies, to re-meet their toddlers who were babies when last I saw them — are gone. I am parched for contact, and Zoom only exacerbates the desire.
In the novel, Rooney registers the uncanny disconnection between image and voice that haunts the calls between Connell and Marianne: “When they speak the video stream is high quality but frequently fails to match the audio, which gives him a sense of Marianne as a moving image, a thing to be looked at.” The adaptation doesn’t portray these 2020 moments of sensory confusion, so heavy with fatigue and despair. The video connection between Marianne and Connell works just fine; it’s the distance between them brought into relief against their tender familiarity, the shorthand phrases they use to say “you know me better than anyone and you know just what I mean,” that makes the video chats, for the characters and the viewer, so affecting. The technology of the chat hyperbolizes desire, the “cloud of possibility” that the critic Lauren Berlant tells us “is generated by the gap between an object’s specificity and the needs and promises projected onto it.”
What happens when the familiar and poignant gap of desire is cauterized by a technology that underscores our separateness? What’s left but void?
At the end of episode 10, “Normal People” circles back to consider the false connections offered by 21st century technologies, specifically by social media. Marianne and Connell are Skyping again, this time discussing Connell’s new therapist and Marianne’s anger over the forms of grief inaugurated online. Specifically, she’s upset about the messages left on their friend Rob’s Facebook page after his death, which she can’t stop ritually checking. “I’m like, what’s the etiquette there?” Marianne asks. “Should I be liking every comment on his wall?” Connell slowly begins to smile throughout her rant; we see him acknowledging her anger and recognizing in it the Marianne he’s always loved, uncompromising and truthful. No, Connell assures her, the comments left on his Facebook wall don’t represent the Rob they knew. The Rob they knew was insecure and desperate to be liked. “I know I can talk,” Connell says deprecatingly, and then he pauses and looks at Marianne’s onscreen projection.
It’s worth watching the entire series just to see the look that passes over Paul Mescal’s face as Connell at this moment. This look acknowledges the whole history of their friendship, which has seen him deny knowing Marianne in school to try to preserve his popularity with his friends. (“I know I can talk.”) It apologizes to her again and thanks her for still being with him, even at a remove. “I miss you,” Connell says with all the love of their long friendship behind the words.
Connell’s look tells the story of everything he shares with Marianne. It says that wires and cables and technology may enable this form of “chatting,” but intimacy requires proximity, and no video chat will ever replicate the nearness of the real thing. It says, I know you, and I’ll see you on the other side of this when we have nothing but time.